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Light rail added to Pinellas County transit agency's long-term plans

ST. PETERSBURG — After years of debate and inaction, Pinellas County's transit agency voted Wednesday to add light rail to its 10-year plan.

The action marks the first time light rail has been part of the agency's state-mandated plan instead of an abstract idea. The plan lays out how the system could operate in Pinellas.

A 26-mile route between St. Petersburg and Clearwater would be done in two phases, completed by 2033. The $2.67 billion system would include a junction in the Gateway area and a Tampa connection over the Howard Frankland Bridge.

Eight trains would stop every 15 minutes during the week, 18 hours a day. On weekends, there would be four trains with stops every 30 minutes.

The plan assumes the federal government would approve the project and pay half the construction and equipment costs.

Turning the plan into reality will require a lot more detail, analysis and support from county voters.

The 10-year transit development plan, which is required by the state for grant funding, only represents PSTA's ideas on rail and are based on assumptions that could change, executive director Tim Garling said.

An alternatives analysis for rail options in Pinellas is expected to begin next year. That 18-month study should provide more details, such as how many stops the system would include.

The PSTA plan also is based on a 1-cent sales tax increase being approved by voters in 2012, in addition to the agency's current property tax revenue. The sales tax would be split between rail and a bus service expansion.

But some PSTA board members, most of whom are elected officials, say passing a sales tax increase will have to include swapping out the property tax for the agency to win over voters.

A September poll for the agency showed 64 percent of voters opposed raising property taxes to pay for more buses and rail. But 62 percent favored the sales tax hike if property taxes were lowered.

Board member Julie Ward Bujalski, a Dunedin commissioner, worried that the plan would raise questions among the public about how the agency will spend money. The plan assumes a sales tax would be added without eliminating the property tax for the agency.

A sales tax likely won't pass without a swap or cap on property taxes, said County Commissioner Ken Welch, a board member.

"I share the same concern about having a plan that I think has no chance," said board member Paul Gibson, vice mayor of Clearwater.

But St. Petersburg Council Chairman Jeff Danner said it was appropriate to show the height of options for Pinellas. Garling cautioned against placing too much weight on the plan, which he maintained was not a settled "action plan" to build rail. The plan could radically change.

And it wouldn't be the first time.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Light rail added to Pinellas County transit agency's long-term plans 12/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 11:49pm]
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